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CASVA Curates

The Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts has drawn strength from the generosity of its founding mission to support the study of the art of the world, while encouraging the research and professional development of art historians of all backgrounds and outlooks. This has generally meant that the practice of art history here has been inclusive, without distinguishing between the so-called two art histories, of the academy and the museum. CASVA has welcomed curators as much as academics, and the recent “material” turn to attend to the making of works of art has reinforced efforts at CASVA and elsewhere to bring conservation, curatorial expertise, and art historical investigation together.

Nonetheless, the statistical record of the employment of CASVA’s predoctoral fellows indicates a strong tendency toward academic teaching, with less than a quarter establishing themselves in museum careers. Those who took this path have had singular success. The David E. Finley fellowship was created in honor of the Gallery’s first director, even before the founding of CASVA, and was intended to encourage new generations of “museum men.” Sarah W. Schroth (former director, Nasher Museum of Art), Leah Dickerman (director of editorial and content strategy, Museum of Modern Art), Stephen C. Pinson (curator, department of photographs, Metropolitan Museum of Art), David Pullins (associate curator, European paintings, Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Phil Taylor (curatorial assistant, department of photography, Museum of Modern Art) each held the Finley fellowship. Other fellowships have a less distinct directive toward museum work, but the record here is also strong. Ronda Kasl (curator, Latin American art, Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Jeffrey Weiss (senior curator, Guggenheim Museum) held Paul Mellon fellowships. Among former Robert H. Smith fellows are Betsy Wieseman, now curator and head of the department of northern European paintings at the National Gallery of Art, Stephanie Schrader (curator, department of drawings, J. Paul Getty Museum), and Alan Chong (director, Currier Museum of Art); both Jodie Hauptman (senior curator, department of drawings, Museum of Modern Art), and John Davis (undersecretary for museums and research/provost, Smithsonian Institution) were Wyeth predoctoral fellows.

This list could be longer, but the percentages would not change. That relatively few outstanding graduate students seemed eager to follow curatorial careers became a concern in the later twentieth century, as an older generation retired. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation stepped up to meet this growing need, and Mellon Curatorial Fellowships, as well as Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowships, now help students enter the field, while diversifying the pool. In this they have not been alone. The Center for Curatorial Leadership (CCL), for example, has provided much career guidance and sharing of experience. The Studio Museum in Harlem, dedicated to the history and influence of black culture, has played a unique role in providing a pathway to museum careers. The profession as a whole, however, remains relatively opaque to new generations interested in serving a wider public.

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Ashley Dimmig, Ittleson Fellow, 2017–2019

It was, then, noteworthy that last year three out of seven predoctoral fellows in residence at CASVA embarked on challenging careers in museums. Ashley Dimmig (PhD, University of Michigan, 2019) left CASVA to take up the Wieler-Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellowship in Islamic art at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. As the only Islamic expert on the staff, she is working on the reconceptualization of the Islamic collections in conjunction with the curator of Asian art. Dimmig finds herself applying the theoretical knowledge gained over the years to a reinstallation that must have an impact both within and beyond Baltimore. She was encouraged in her plans for a curatorial career at Michigan and was also able to participate in the CCL seminar in 2018 during her CASVA Ittleson fellowship. Maryan Ainsworth (curator, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Kress-Beinecke Professor at CASVA) supported her interests, and those of others in the group. As Ashley Dimmig puts it, Ainsworth “facilitated our exposure to various facets of a museum career that are often excluded from graduate studies. While there are some aspects of curatorial work that can only be learned on the job, building interdisciplinary and inter-institutional relationships has been critical; even after leaving CASVA I feel supported by a network of people to whom I know I can turn for advice or guidance.”

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Michele Frederick, Samuel H. Kress Fellow, 2017–2019

Maryan Ainsworth’s guidance was especially welcome to Michele Frederick (PhD, University of Delaware, 2019), the Samuel H. Kress Predoctoral Fellow, whose field, like Ainsworth’s, is northern European art. Like Ashley Dimmig, Frederick took every opportunity to pursue a museum career and joined the curatorial track at Delaware. Her Kress fellowship provided for a year of research in Europe as well as a curatorial component during residence. As Frederick puts it, “as a seventeenth-century Dutch/Flemish specialist, I couldn’t ask for a better collection, staff, or environment than the National Gallery. Being able to assist the members of the northern baroque paintings department was an honor. Furthermore, that opportunity helped to reignite my passion for museum work at the very moment when I was entering the job market.” As the associate curator of European art at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, Michele Frederick oversees the collection of European paintings and sculpture from 1550 to 1900. This museum, like many others, is seeking to challenge traditional boundaries by exhibiting together works from different parts of the collection. Frederick has already paired Anthony van Dyck with Amy Sherald and juxtaposed a market scene by Frans Snyders with a towering glass assemblage by contemporary artist Beth Lipman. The supportive network she developed at CASVA has helped with this, as have the conversations about the importance of crossover between curatorial work and teaching.

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Annika Johnson, Wyeth Fellow, 2017–2019

The challenges faced by Annika Johnson (PhD, University of Pittsburgh, 2019) are very different. On completing her Wyeth fellowship she was appointed associate curator of Native American art at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha. Much of the collection has not been exhibited or researched for decades, and even key works remain to be identified. As the first full-time curator in this field at the Joslyn, Johnson is concentrating on “building partnerships with Native communities in this region and beyond to understand and develop programming around our collection.” With support from the Mellon Foundation, and informed by her conversations with Native artists, elders, and cultural experts, her research will lead to a reinstallation of the museum’s collection of Native American art.

Annika Johnson wanted to be a curator from an early moment and was grateful that Pittsburgh’s department supported her in this ambition. Curatorial studies were woven into her dissertation, which examined the history of Dakota art making as well as the history of the tribe’s representation in public exhibitions. Her commitment was nourished at the National Gallery through the field trips and conversations orchestrated by Maryan Ainsworth, as well as the regular CASVA shoptalks, colloquia, lectures, and visits to the collection. “Arriving at the National Gallery every morning,” she reflects, “was most inspiring! The quality of National Gallery exhibitions has set a standard in my eyes. And to be in DC and take in the depth and variety of so many exhibitions helped shape my own curatorial vision.”

The hard work of these predoctoral fellows, together with their evident talent and passion, were rewarded by special opportunities provided by predoctoral fellowships here at the National Gallery. Once in residence, they found the daily support of senior scholars and curators of inestimable value. All three express humility as they move into responsible positions and gratitude for the moral and professional support given at CASVA. It is an enormous satisfaction to be able to help fellows realize their dreams and to build a new generation of curators who share and understand many of the challenges confronting the National Gallery itself.


Elizabeth Cropper
Dean, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts

 

This feature was originally intended for the spring 2020 issue of the Gallery’s Bulletin, which could not be published because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we are pleased to be able to share it with you in this format. See the archive of CASVA Bulletin articles here.